Invasion of Ukraine and US sanctions on Russia raise new questions about space station operations


Severe United States and allies economic sanctions announced Thursday in response to The Russian invasion of Ukraine will “degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program,” President Biden said at a White House press conference. The comments raised new questions about the ongoing operation of the International Space Station.

Permanently equipped since 2000 with rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts, the space station is an extremely expensive, complex, and extraordinarily successful example of superpower cooperation dating back to the end of the Cold War, an extension of 1970s détente that culminated in the historic Apollo-Soyuz test project.

The International Space Station.


The relationship has been rocky at times, but both parties have helped each other throughout and neither can run the space station alone. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, threatening rhetoric from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and tough sanctions announced by President Biden are the most significant challenges to the project to date.

Biden said Thursday “we estimate we will cut more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports. And we will deal a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military.”

“It will degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program,” he continued. “It will hurt their ability to build ships, reducing their ability to be economically competitive. And it will be a blow to Putin’s long-term strategic ambitions.”

A White House fact sheet providing details of the sanctions does not specifically mention space, but says the United States will impose “Russia-wide restrictions on sensitive American technologies produced in countries foreigners using US-origin software, technology or equipment”.

“This includes Russia-wide restrictions on semiconductors, telecommunications, encryption security, lasers, sensors, navigation, avionics and maritime technologies. These tough and sustained controls will cut the Russia’s access to cutting-edge technologies.”

NASA said in a statement late Thursday that the agency continues to work “with all of our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the safety of ongoing International Space Station operations.”

“The new export control measures will continue to enable U.S.-Russian civilian space cooperation,” the statement said. “No changes are planned for the agency’s support of ongoing operations in orbit and on the ground.”

Earlier, Roscomos director Dmitry Rogozin launched a series of tweets directing sarcasm and anger at Biden and the West. He pointed out that the Russian thrusters provide the power to raise the station’s altitude to counter atmospheric drag and move the lab away when threatened by space debris.

He even embarked on a dig at SpaceX founder Elon Musk for launching thousands of Starlink internet satellites which he claims have “polluted” low Earth orbit.

“Maybe President Biden is off topic, so explain to him that the correction of the station’s orbit, his avoidance of the dangerous rendezvous with space junk, with which your talented businessmen have polluted the near-Earth orbit, is produced exclusively by the engines of the Russian Progress MS cargo ships,” a translation of his tweet read.

He made no mention of a recent Russian anti-satellite weapons test who created a cloud of potentially hazardous space debris.

Either way, the Russian engines will also provide the thrust needed to safely return the space station to the atmosphere at the end of its life, targeting reentry over an unpopulated stretch of ocean to ensure no debris does not fall on populated areas.

“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from uncontrolled deorbiting and falling to the United States or Europe? he tweeted in Russian, according to Google Translate. “There is also the possibility of dropping a 500 ton structure in India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect?

“The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all the risk is yours. Are you ready for this? Gentlemen, when planning sanctions, check those who generate them for Alzheimer’s disease just in case. To avoid may your sanctions fall on your head. And not just figuratively.”

US-Russian cooperation was essential to the construction and continued operation of the space station. Russia stepped in and launched a steady stream of astronauts to the lab when the space shuttle was grounded after the Columbia disaster in 2003, then provided transportation for American astronauts and partner agencies after the shuttle program ended in 2001.

The ferry service has been beneficial – and lucrative – for Roscosmos, which has charged up to $90 million per seat, taking in $4 billion since 2006.

As Rogozin said, Russia provides the thruster and thrusters needed to periodically reboost the station, a critical capability that NASA currently cannot replace. Maneuvering is provided by thrusters built into Russian modules Zarya and Zvezda and aboard visiting Progress supply ships.

A Northrop Grumman Cygnus freighter that arrived earlier this week is the first US vehicle after the Space Shuttle to be capable of reboosting, but it alone cannot replace Russian capability.

For its part, NASA provides the lion’s share of the space station’s solar power and uses four massive gyroscopes to reorient the lab as needed without the need for thrusters. NASA also provides wireless communications, computer services, and spacewalking equipment commonly used by cosmonauts.

But NASA astronauts are not trained to operate Russian systems and vice versa for cosmonauts. Neither party can operate the lab safely.

Thanks to the SpaceX Dragon capsules and Boeing Starliners soon to fly, NASA no longer depends solely on the Russian Soyuz to transport crew to and from the ISS. Crew Dragons have carried four NASA-sponsored crew to the station to date with a commercial visit scheduled for early April and another NASA crew launched April 15.

Russian and American teammates

The station’s current crew is “mixed”, with 2 Russians and an American — Anton Shkaplerov, Pyotr Dubrov and Mark Vande Hei — embarked on a Soyuz, 3 Americans and a German launched aboard a Crew Dragon: Raja Chari , Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer.

The two sides are currently negotiating plans to continue launching astronauts aboard Soyuz and cosmonauts aboard Crew Dragons to ensure both agencies have personnel on board to operate critical systems even if a contingency forces a ferry – and its crew – leaving unexpectedly.

Two NASA astronauts recently completed their Soyuz training at Star City near Moscow and one of them is set to launch on an upcoming Soyuz. Similarly, a cosmonaut trains for a first flight aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. The launches of the two missions are scheduled for September.

But a detailed agreement has not been finalized and the evolution of the negotiations in view of the current crisis is not yet known. In the meantime, the hatches between the American and Russian segments of the ISS remain open, a symbolic reminder of the cooperation it took to assemble and operate the most complex spacecraft ever built.

“I really hope things go well,” Vande Hei said of US-Russian relations in a January interview with CBS News. “I really think the space station and our cooperation with the Russians on the space station in particular, is a great sign of the success we can have when we get to know each other and do things that are cooperative, rather than finding points of conflict.”


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